Chelsea’s Braxton Bruce will take his mountain biking prowess to Colorado.

Moments before the race, the crowd grows silent. Anticipation builds as Braxton Bruce and the other racers firmly grasp the rubber handles of their mountain bikes. From the grassy starting line, Braxton looks through his Oakley shades at the worn dirt trail he will soon traverse. He sits atop his gray Trek Procaliber bike, his pointer fingers on the brakes, as a man’s voice comes over the loud speakers. Roaring with excitement, the crowd joins in with “3-2-1, go,” and Braxton is off, accelerating toward the tree line where he will be met with a series of natural obstacles.

This scene is a familiar one for Braxton, a Chelsea High School graduate and rider for the Shelby County Composite Team. He was part of an elite group of high school riders who raced varsity this past school year, and is among the best of the best in Alabama. “It is an honor to be ranked high in the state, and I do not take the position lightly,” Braxton says.  “I know that many younger riders are looking at the varsity riders, and I want them to see a good sport regardless of how I finish.”

Braxton describes mountain biking as a long-distance sport that combines nature and competition. Each race lasts around an hour-and-a-half and is full of challenges that demand a certain level of accuracy, coordination and precision from riders. “The trails are tight with trees all around, requiring intense focus to ride fast and safely,” he says, noting roots, rocks and different types of soil make the race that much more complex. Racers must remain focused in order to avoid collision, and if they do wreck, they must get up and keep going as the bikers race against the clock.

Braxton started out as an independent racer his freshman year due to not having access to a biking program at his school. As the only rider from Chelsea, he did not have a coach. He trained with the Oak Mountain bike team, but had to compete independently, meaning his results didn’t benefit the team.

But in 2015, Braxton’s athletic career took a sharp turn. A shoulder injury he picked up playing football rendered him unable to sit behind the handles of his bike. He tore his labrum, the rubbery tissue that helps hold the ball of the arm joint in place, which took him off the trails and into physical therapy. As soon as he could get atop a stationary bike, he did. Scott Bruce, Braxton’s father, says the injury didn’t discourage his son but made him even better by pushing him to new heights.

During the football season, Scott had noticed a change in Braxton’s demeanor. He rarely got to play, and it was affecting his confidence. But the injury sparked a change for the better. As Braxton rested his sling on top of the elliptical, he built up his endurance. While he could only do two races that season—and ended up hurting his other shoulder a year later—his focus shifted from his present circumstances to the upcoming season.

The following year the Shelby County Composite Team formed, giving Braxton and other riders the chance to race for a group bigger than just themselves. On the team Braxton flourished, earning the chance to wear the leader’s jersey his fourth race of the season. The jersey is worn by the top racer in each division, and because Braxton won the third race of the season, he was awarded the honor.

Although Braxton doesn’t broadcast his accomplishments, his father will eagerly tell you Braxton is the second-best racer in the state, won a National Interscholastic Cycling Association award, and almost always comes home with hardware after races. Scott doesn’t take credit for Braxton’s achievements. He suggests his work ethic is purely in his DNA.

Scott says he can see in Braxton his grandfather, Gerald W. Bruce, describing him as intelligent, stoic and wise, and someone who would take action only after considering all sides. Being analytical was his gift, a gift that was passed down to Braxton, Scott says.

Scott takes pride in seeing Braxton prosper, and others have taken note, too. Parents have told Scott they tell their children to be like Braxton.

Braxton’s passion for the sport is not limited to state titles or accolades, and it’s not confined to just the state of Alabama. He will attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, a more than 1,400-mile trek from his hometown. “I went to a mountain bike camp during the summer of 2017 and was hooked. Colorado is beautiful and is the mecca for mountain biking,” he says.

He has received a few scholarships in order to make the move that, like many college students, will leave him living more independently. “I will miss friends and family in Alabama, but most of all my mom’s cooking,” he says, noting his favorite is his mother’s seared tuna. His parents are already looking at flights for holidays and breaks from school. Scott says he’ll miss the “good old times,” like teaching Braxton to drive a boat, and being present for other special moments of his life.

Braxton loves to see people smile, which is why he plans to become a dentist. He will major in cellular and molecular biology, and wants to come back to Birmingham to complete dental school at UAB. “As for my racing career, I plan to keep pedaling and see where it takes me,” he says.